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Torah Sparks

Parashat Mishpatim - Mevarekhim Hahodesh
January 25, 2014 – 24 Shevat 5774

Annual (Exodus 21:1-24:18): Etz Hayim p. 456; Hertz p. 306
Triennial (Exodus 21:1-22:3): Etz Hayim p. 456; Hertz p. 306
Haftarah (Jeremiah 24:8-22, 33:25-26): (Etz Hayim p. 482; Hertz p. 323)

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Continuing a listing of laws begun at revelation, God sets forth rules concerning the treatment of slaves, capital offenses, punishments for causing bodily injury, responsibility over one's animals and property, caring for strangers, ethical prohibitions, festivals, obligations to God, and Divine promises.

God asks the Israelite leadership to approach Mount Sinai again. The people promise to faithfully fulfill God's commands. Moses ascends Mount Sinai, receiving stone tablets containing God's teachings.

Theme #1: And Now For Something Completely Different ...

These are the rules that you shall set before them. (Exodus 21:1)

Even though the narrative shift is not absolute, this portion marks a clear shift to a Torah of laws.

It’s like that scene at the end of [the movie] The Candidate, when Robert Redford, having finally won the election, says, “What do we do now?” Freed after 430 years, the Israelites have their “What do we do now?” moment. Up to this point, the Bible has been a cracking good adventure story, a Judean Robert Ludlum. Now it turns into a how-to manual. … So, how does the Lord begin? With slavery, of course -- verse after verse about how long a Hebrew slave must serve his master, who owns a slave’s wife and children, what happens to a girl whose father sells her into slavery, and so forth. I know, I know: our modern ideas about slavery don’t apply. … Even so, isn’t it disheartening that slavery is so central to God and His people that His laws address it first? -- David Plotz, Good Book

Exodus 21:1 refers to the people in the third person, indicating that Moses was now acting as intermediary on their behalf, in accordance to their request in Exodus 20:18-21. This suggests that they heard the Ten Commandments, but the rest of the Torah was presented to them by Moses, who had received it from Yahweh. The result is that it is not entirely clear from Exodus what the people heard directly and what was mediated by Moses. -- Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal

The statutes and the judgments were legislated for the nations of the world and fixed by sages and people understanding, those who knew about religion and justice. Those lawgivers actually preceded the statutes and judgments themselves. But it is the other way around with the judgments of Israel, the statutes of the Torah. According to the Zohar, the Torah was created and aeon before the creation of the world. ... This is the meaning of "which you shall set before them ..." Do not read it spatially but temporally: before them in time! Judgment comes before all being, for God gives us the law. -- Kol Simchah

Questions for Discussion:

Plotz laments that the rules of slavery are discussed so early in list of laws that mark this Torah portion. Is the placement of these rules in itself a commentary about a people who had just escaped from bondage? How difficult is it for a people who had been slaves for so long to remove their slave mentality? Is the focus on slavery here an admission that the Israelites are not quite ready to begin living in freedom? Or, is the fact that these rule of slavery are far more humane than the slavery they endured in Egypt supposed to represent a true turning point in the Israelite perspective?

Vogt notes that the transition between the scene of the revelation and the beginning of this Torah portion might seem awkward. This flies in the face of rabbinic commentaries that claim that the Hebrew letter “vav” at the beginning of the portion signifies a clean segue from the initial encounter at Sinai. Should it matter whether the people hear the postrevelation commandments from God or from Moses? Or, since the Israelites had recently expressed fright of hearing God’s voice, isn’t it essential that we know the identity of speaker in this passage?

To Kol Simchah, the laws of the Torah are timeless, and the people who follow them must adjust to them accordingly, rather than expecting the law adjusting to the people. In what ways is following the laws of the Torah an adjustment of our natural instincts? Or, are the laws of the Torah instinctive in the first place?

Theme #2: Off With Their Heads!

He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. … When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death. He who kidnaps a man … shall be put to death. He who insults his father or mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:12, 14-17)

The issue of capital punishment remains controversial today, and the Torah states its positions on the matter forcefully from the outset.

Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: “When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death” (Exodus 21:14). Now if, because of this man -- against whom it is unknown whether the charge of murder has substance or not -- the service in the Temple, [which is important enough to] supersede the Sabbath, is interrupted, how much more and more by far should the saving of human life supersede the laws of the Sabbath. – Talmud Yoma 85a

The laws [of capital offenses] parallel in content certain of the Ten Commandments: murder, honoring parents, stealing, and thus mark those areas of life which are categorically prohibited within the covenant community. -- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus

[The law of capital offenses] have the “whoever” form and provide absolute rules for remedying situations that would rupture community stability. The method of carrying out the death penalty is not stipulated. -- Carol Meyers, Exodus

Questions for Discussion:

The passage in Talmud Yoma tells us that matters of justice can and often should override the observance of the Sabbath (assuming that dealing with the case at hand is time-sensitive). What does this say about the importance of justice in Jewish thought? What does it say about the lines that separate ethical observance and ritual observance? What are other examples of Jewish rituals that can be trumped by ethical concerns? How do we decide when an ethical concern is important enough to break Shabbat?

To Childs, there is a direct link in the Torah between the Ten Commandments and capital punishment. Does this mean that the rules in the Ten Commandments should have greater priority than the other commandments? Does the way in which the Ten Commandments are introduced to the Israelites make them more important, or should that episode be seen as a formal introduction between God and Israel? Should certain commandments “outrank” others? If so, what is our criteria for ranking them?

Meyers understands capital offenses to be those that cause communal disruption, not just individual suffering. Is it fair that more “private” transgressions have a lesser punishment? Do threats to the fabric of the community justify a harsher punishment? What does this say about the importance of community? To what extent must we guard against civil unrest?

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